The phrase “the best defense is a good offense” is one applied to every sporting event out there. But these past few months, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team has been proving that the opposite may hold as well. The Badgers are in the middle of an extremely successful season, something they all attribute to their tight defense.
“Coach likes to sometimes call the defensemen the quarterbacks,” senior defenseman Kelly Jaminski said. “We kind of see how the play is developing and we have to make the play happen and generate that offense.”
At this point in the season, the quarterbacks of Wisconsin hockey have accomplished the impressive task of holding every opponent to two goals or less each game, a feat that even the No. 1 ranked Minnesota team couldn’t achieve. In fact, Wisconsin currently leads the conference in the goals-against column, with an exceptionally low 16 goals, the next closest being the Golden Gophers with 23.
Furthermore, UW (12-2-2, 8-2-2 WCHA) has gone unbeaten its last 12 games, even against some of the conference’s top foes, like No. 3 University of North Dakota (9-3-2, 7-3-2 WCHA), who was fresh off a season-highlight win against the Golden Gophers. When the two ranked competitors faced off two weekends ago, Wisconsin came away with the win Saturday night, along with the No. 2 spot in the conference standings. Freshman goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens credits this huge victory to the disciplined defense of Wisconsin, saying everyone pitches in in the defensive zone.
“Our defense was very good [against North Dakota],” Desbiens said. “Alex did a great job stopping goals, but the players in front of her keep the shots to the outside, take care of the rebounds, block shots and back check hard. Overall, we did a great job defensively, and offensively we just took every chance we had and put the puck in the net.”
Continuing their hot streak, the Badgers spent the weekend after Thanksgiving up in Duluth, Minn., where they took on Minnesota-Duluth, adding a tie and a win to their record. Both games were close, with the win Saturday coming from junior forward Karley Sylvester’s lone goal. Once again, Wisconsin says the win was due to shutting the Bulldogs down with their incredible defensive play. According to Kelly Jaminski, this was something UW had been working on in the practices leading up to the UMD series.
“Preparing for UMD, we really worked a lot in practice on defensive plays, being competitive in the corners and being aggressive in general,” Jaminski said. “You can kind of tell in the way the score was that it was pretty tight both games, so I think we really came through with the practice we put in beforehand.”
She also said a good defense is a flexible one — the easier and faster a defensive unit can adapt to different situations, the more successful it will be. This is something she can say from experience, as Wisconsin has been running a near-perfect penalty kill this season, ranking first in the conference with 38 successful penalty kills out of 41, earning the team a 92.7 percent success rate playing short-handed. The next closest is Minnesota at 90.6 percent.
An effective penalty kill might have become a pleasant surprise for UW this season, as playing short-handed is the one area of its defensive game that took a while to kick in, according to Courtney Burke, a sophomore defenseman.
“[Our penalty kill] started off a little rough, but I think the Ohio [State] series really turned it around,” Burke said. “I think we almost went 100 percent on it, and I think that gave us a lot of confidence.”
But through it all, full-strength or penalty kill, top-ranked opponents or exhibition matchups, goaltender Alex Rigsby has lead her team to victory from between the pipes. The senior was named Defensive Player of the Week by the WCHA last week after blocking 54 of the 55 shots she faced against the tough North Dakota squad.
As if that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, after the win against UMD this past weekend, Rigsby broke the school record for wins with 92, a record that was previously held by goaltender Jessie Vetter, who graduated in 2009. Head coach Mark Johnson discussed Rigsby’s journey as a goaltender and her road to success.
“I didn’t think anyone was going to come near [Vetter’s record],” Johnson said. “But along comes Alex, who’s gotten better every year, who’s had some adversities through injuries and has been able to battle through a lot of different things.
“The credit goes to her with her commitment, certainly she’s had some good players in front of her to help her out, but she’s gotten better every year and she’s been consistent and she’s got good work habits and we’re certainly excited for her and happy for her.”